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A Dangerous Prayer: Lord, am I THAT guy?

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Here is an excellent quote from Lord, I Just Want to Be Happy by Leslie Vernick: “Our pride makes us unwilling to be taught, unwilling to be warned, and unwilling to be wrong, and because of our self-deception, we don’t realize we’re so unwilling and prideful. We just think we’re seeing things as they really are. But the Bible says, ‘There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death’ (Proverbs 14:12). When we are closed to the influence of wise people in our lives, we’re vulnerable to making poor choices.”

Listening is a difficult skill for all of us, especially when we are the topic. Peter even refused to listen to Jesus (God himself) when told that he would deny Jesus three times. (Of course it is possible Peter had adult ADHD, in which case we can give him a bit of a pass.) When we learn to openly listen to input about ourselves, it is harder to fall victim to self-deception. Also, we learn that wisdom doesn’t only come from wise grey-beards with impressive pedigrees; it can even come from people further down the ladder than us. That’s because God is not opposed to sharing his insights through the lowly. Unfortunately, pride can render even the most mature Christian incapable of listening. When life throws them an “unexpected” curve, they are caught off guard, bewildered, angry and hurt. They naturally lash out at others. But if we have a shred of teachable attitude left within us, the first thing to examine is our own heart, though we can’t accurately undertake such an effort alone. We need God’s help AND the help of other people.

One of the most important, and dangerous, prayers every Christian can pray is: Lord, is there anything in me you want to change, and if so will you please help me change? Or, in more hip vernacular: Lord, am I THAT guy or gal? This is a dangerous prayer because in my experience God ALWAYS answers this prayer (if offered sincerely), and the process of change that follows can be painful and long, sometimes taking years to unfold. In addition, the process can push nearly everything else in our life to the sidelines. The first thing God often shows us (especially us men) is pride that has crept into our life, even when we thought we were the epitome of humility. Ironically, some of the most prideful people are also insecure. But God can help us through both issues, and it sure feels good when he is finished crushing our pride. If we never pray this prayer, we will continue to screw up in new and exciting ways year after weary year. More importantly, we will continue to be obnoxious and damage our relationships.

Throughout history, stubbornness, aka pride, has wreaked havoc on God’s people. No wonder God resists the proud (and don’t I know it!), but he loves a malleable heart. In my humble opinion (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), pride is Satan’s most effective tool against God’s people, and he uses it with perverse relish. Pride, and its twisted cousin “moral superiority,” are the root of much mischief, hurts and mean-spirited behavior between Christians. Perhaps that’s why fewer and fewer people are attracted to Christianity in America.

To combat pride, every Christian would be wise to memorize ten words found in Romans 12:3: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. . .” That said, it is important to understand that some psychiatric conditions have certain symptoms that resemble those of a person struggling with pride. That’s why it is important to get checked out by a trained mental health professional. If you are interested in learning more about the dangers posed by pride, below are links to two excellent articles about pride and the raw conflict and deception it can cause. They are written for church leaders, but apply to all believers.

http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/259476-pride-greatest-problem.html
http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/259479-4-magic-words-next-argument.html

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Twitter Martyrs

Lewes Bonfire, Martyrs Crosses/Andrew Dunn

Lewes Bonfire, Martyrs Crosses/Andrew Dunn

Recently, during a weekly Bible study, some friends and I got sidetracked with a discussion about martyrdom. We are not usually so lugubrious in our explorations of faith and life (Unless discussing the prospects of the Oakland Raiders). Anyhow, later on I realized that we had focused on how we would or should endure the gruesome realities of physical persecution and death for our belief in Christ and the teachings of the Bible. Certainly there are places in the modern world where Christians still pay the ultimate price for their faith. But here in America, physical persecution and death for the faith is rare. That doesn’t mean Christians do not suffer a form of persecution and martyrdom in civilized America. The secular culture in America and other places around the world has simply become more sophisticated in their stoning of the saints. Christians and the tenets of the faith are attacked in many ways that do not involve physical violence. Here are some examples of how the civilized world stones Christians and the faith (metaphorically):

Stoning by tweets. Stoning by blogs. Stoning by blog comments. Stoning by political correctness enforcers. Stoning by opinion editorials in newspapers. Stoning by the news media. Stoning by books. Stoning by teachers and professors. Stoning by marketing messages. Stoning by political rhetoric. Stoning by the movie industry. Stoning by television programs. Stoning by the courts. Stoning by corporate PR on social issues. Stoning by the IRS. Stoning by science. And so on.

I do not know if these current forms of religious persecution portend a decline into future physical violence against people of faith. But all believers would do well to remain informed as to what transpires in the world around us. It’s easier to prepare when we know the stones are headed our way and what they look like. Sometimes it is necessary that we respond to persecution, other times we should let God deal with the situation. But we can’t make a decision as to the correct course of action if we are not even aware of the persecution. I know fellow Christians who valiantly try to maintain a positive attitude by burying their heads in the sand. Hey, it’s OK to speak up now and then. Even Jesus didn’t remain silent when some of his accusers attacked him verbally.

Authentic Posers

MH900341678Speaking of yet another reason to be bitter an angry, I recently read an article in a major Christian magazine about young adults and older adults spending more time together in order to bring about healing between generations. Definitely a worthwhile endeavor, though I found myself rankled by one millennial’s assertion that she desired more transparency and authentic authenticity (not a clerical error) from us legacy Christians. Don’t get me wrong, I see much of the posing in the modern church. I’ve done some posing myself, and not for the camera. I also see it among, gasp, millennials. Posing is akin to pride and all humans struggle with it to some degree. Bot for the sake of crossing the generational divide, I will share some very authentic doubts and observations about hypocrisy that occasionally pop up in this boomer’s muddled mind.

Yes, once in a while I have doubts. Not just doubts about doctrine and interpretation of Scriptures. I have random BIG doubts, such as: what if Christ was just a man and there is no God. What if the universe is indifferent to humanity? What if the Bible was written merely from the fertile imaginations of men and, at best, is full of creative allegory? These doubts usually come upon me when reading National Geographic. You know what I mean; those articles that say the universe was formed billions and billions of years ago. Staring at those pictures from the Mars rover Curiosity showing the dry lifeless surface of planet Mars makes me feel small, alone, and incapable of comprehending the unfathomable distance in space. Such musings make me wonder if we are merely a cruel accident of chance and once we die the switch goes off and the lights go out. In other words, what if our lives have no meaning or purpose? Fortunately, hindsight helps me see the hand of God on my life and reminds me that he is real.

Need more authenticity? Why do we put so much feeling and effort into our prayers even when they feel flat and seem to go no further than the ceiling? Why do modern Christians focus more on some sins while ignoring others? Why do some congregations and clergy present a public image of caring when behind the scenes they remain unconcerned about people they wound? Why do we speak so glowingly about loving God when, at times, loving God can feel like trying to love thin air? For instance, if I tell my wife I love her, she usually smiles or gives me a hug. But if I tell God that I love him, my physical senses and my spirit do not always feel a response.

Why do many American Christians put on a front of having it all together when the truth is their life and relationships are a train wreck? Many Christian couples put forth the appearance that their marriage is healthy and good, but then one day word leaks that they are getting divorced and he has moved in with their former babysitter.

Why do we spend so much time and effort keeping up appearances? The answers are complicated. Nevertheless, I will venture one possible explanation. Do you remember when Adam and Eve screwed up in the Garden? Afterwards, one of the first things they did was to make clothes to cover their nakedness. Being completely authentic is a bit like being naked in public. Shame makes us want to cover up. We also do not feel safe when exposed. Ever since the Garden, humans have been trying to cover up. Metaphorically, the fig leafs and animal skins used by Adam and Eve have expanded to include personality and character adjustments that we cleverly create as a mask to cover our sins and flaws. We live in denial as to how we appear before God. We are always naked before God. There is nothing hidden from his eye. But we can at least hide our nakedness, wounds, sins, and flaws from each other . . . or so we think. We want to hide the ugly truth from the eyes of others.

Millennials who cry for more authenticity have a valid point. But a word of caution is appropriate: the depth of our imperfections and sins can run so deep that it can take God a lifetime to peel back our fig leafs and masks to reveal the truth that leads to healing and freedom. If God did it all at once, it might overwhelm and ruin us. That’s why we need to offer grace to each other . . . a lot of grace. Millennials might not know it, but I’d wager most of them are even now making masks and crafting fig leafs to cover the nakedness of their own flaws. And when my grandson is a young adult, he will probably call for millennials to be more . . . authentic.

My Dog is Bitter (No, I did not mean biter.)

It is a beautiful day in Northern California and my two dogs won’t go outside after breakfast. (If they had thumbs they would play video games all day.) Anyhow, we recently bought two identical food bowls, one for each dog. Each food bowl is divided into sections designed to reduce the speed at which my dogs gorge themselves at feeding time. My female dog, named BG, is often bitter and irritable if our male dog, named Joe, gets his bowl of food a few seconds before she gets her bowl of food. BG probably thinks Joe is getting fed with her bowl. In the spirit of détente, my wife wrote each dog’s name on their bowl with a permanent marker, but that didn’t ease tensions between the dogs at meal time. (No, I have not questioned my wife as to why she thought it helpful to write the dogs names on their identical bowls, which made me wonder if my dogs are more literate than I give them credit.)

BG often gets irritated at everything Joe does. If Joe gets a few pats on the head, BG growls at him. If Joe runs to get his bone, BG growls at him. If Joe tries to sleep under the bed with BG, she growls at him. If we go to the park and chuck a tennis ball for Joe to retrieve, BG chases Joe and barks at him. (Their relationship is a lot like marriage . . . did I just say that?)

Have you ever noticed how some people are just like BG? They find fault with everything and everybody. Negativity oozes from their pores. If management changes the layout of office furniture at negative Neal’s place of employment, he doesn’t like the new layout. If a colleague at work makes a mistake, he is on it like white on rice. If the company changes a policy, negative Neal whispers complaints under his breath. If a meeting starts late, negative Neal gripes about the leader’s lack of punctuality. On the other hand, if negative Neal makes a mistake, well, you bring it up at your own hazard. In the mind of negative Neal, his work is important and highly confidential while the work of others is unnecessary and inconvenient, especially when it interferes with his duties.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not an acolyte of Norman Vincent Peale. I do not bow down at the altar of the power of positive thinking. To deny that bad things happen is to deny the truth. I do not believe God expects us to live in a fantasy world where we pretend everything is OK. But I find it disconcerting when encountering uber-negative Christians who have been churched a long time. I have fallen into this trap at times. You know the type: the person who will tell you they are an imperfect sinner but never seem to see their own flaws, only the flaws of others. Again, don’t get me wrong, I too see all the faults and warts that are part of the modern Christian church. What I am talking about here is an unhealthy personal feeling of superiority to others. A need to constantly feed the beast of superiority through criticism is evidence of something amiss in a person’s life. It is, rather, a weakness and a possible sign of deep insecurity.

If the entire Christian church would spend several weeks a year studying and implementing the three verses in Matthew 7:3-5 (it will have more impact if you look it up), it would send shock waves through the darkness for generations. It would also drastically improve the spiritual, mental, and physical health of God’s people. In addition, Philippians 2:14-15 tells us to stop grumbling and complaining. We can attend church for years and go through all the motions of piety, but it is just dead religion if we never make these verses active in our lives. Sure, we’ll feel good when our ears are tickled by truth, but we won’t be transformed down deep in our soul. These verses are the cure for many ills.

Extreme Christianity: Embracing the Zealot

Yesterday I spotted a wild turkey trotting down the shoulder of a freeway. No wonder they are called WILD turkeys. The bird wasn’t even going with the flow of traffic. Trotting down the shoulder of a busy California freeway is akin to extreme sports such as base jumping or running with the bulls. (Actually, driving on a California freeway is a lot like running with the bulls.) And by the way, where does a turkey need to go in such a hurry that she feels compelled to use the freeway? Regardless, that bird was willing to take a risk and move in an unconventional way, at least for a turkey.

Is there a spiritual lesson here? (I doubt it, but here goes.) Within the ecosystem of modern Christianity there are some who believe American Christians have become too comfortable, that the American dream has hijacked our faith. They argue that the pursuit of the American dream has derailed us from a life of trusting God while taking risks to spread Christianity in unconventional ways. Perhaps they are right. But on an individual level there are still brave souls who break with convention to step out in faith and take risks to spread the message of Christ. For example, young couples who sell everything and move into dangerous inner-city neighborhoods to toil among the poorest of the poor and share God’s love deserve our encouragement and support. We need such zealots in the world.

Even so, living an extreme or unconventional form of Christianity is not necessarily something all Christians must do to perpetuity. Life is too fluid in some ways and constant in others for a one-size-fits-all expression of faith. Everybody is different and some people thrive at living on the edge more than others. But even those who thrive on it probably won’t do it all their lives. I am sure that turkey is not going to spend the rest of her life running down the shoulder of the freeway. That would be crazy, even for a wild turkey. But for a short while, that turkey was living on the edge. How exhilarating!

Bamboozled: The Value of Trust

MC900332500If you have a few decades under your belt (or in my case sagging over the belt), you’ve likely had the unpleasant experience of being conned by an unscrupulous person or business. Recently, it happened to some folks who are very dear to me. (We’ll call them Ben and Liz). Ben and Liz managed a large event where they sold refreshments. The company that provided the debit and credit card machines for the event withdrew, under a dubious pretense, several thousand dollars from the business account of Ben and Liz. Ben and Liz had to battle through the legal process with the credit card company, but eventually their money was returned. This experience opened their eyes to the unfortunate reality that there are people and businesses out there that make a lot of money by pushing the boundaries of ethics. Some even have no problem with outright stealing. In other words, you can’t trust everyone, it seems.

A lot of businesses people could take a clue from my mechanic. I have one of those rare mechanics who doesn’t try to upsell me. I have brought my truck to our mechanic a few times for problems that turned out to be nothing serious. He didn’t charge me a dime. That builds trust. When something major goes wrong with my truck you can be sure I take it to my favorite mechanic because I trust that he will not take advantage of me. Of course, trustworthiness is something you either have or you don’t.

The gradual destruction of trust in our society has consequences. Many people don’t know God because they have had their trust abused by life. As a result, they don’t know if individual Christians can be trusted. They don’t know if the church can be trusted. They don’t know if clergy can be trusted. They don’t know if the Bible can be trusted. And they don’t know if God can be trusted. But Psalm 118:8 says:

“It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in people.”

The reality is that sometimes horrible things happen to the most loyal and loving followers who put their trust in God. That’s why I very much appreciate the inclusion of verses 14 and 15 in Psalm 91:

“The Lord says, ‘I will rescue those who love me.
I will protect those who trust in my name.
When they call on me, I will answer;
I will be with them in trouble.'”

That last line is very important: “I will be with them in trouble.” It is a dose of reality. It tells us to expect trouble. You may have heard the term “wait for it.” Well, God promises to be there with us in hardship and to rescue us if we wait for it . . . or rather, wait for him. I won’t jerk your chain. The truth is that sometimes we have to wait a long time for deliverance. Perhaps that is because building trust can take a long time after it has been abused.